RANGOON—In the largest popular demonstration since the monk-led 2007 Saffron Revolution, hundreds of protesters marched through Rangoon on Friday to mark International Peace Day and to demand an end to the ongoing conflicts in Burma’s ethnic regions.
In a defiant move rarely seen in Burma, protesters gathered in front of City Hall on Friday morning before setting off in lines through the busy streets of Rangoon to their planned rendezvous, Inya Lake, where they say they will hold a prayer service for national peace in the evening.
The protest was co-organized by several civic groups, including the Kachin Peace Network, and is the first public demonstration conducted in Rangoon without government approval.
Public gatherings and protests are now officially allowed in Burma, but only after the organizers have sought and received permission from the relevant township authorities.
One of the organizers, Wai Lu, who was recently released from detention after participating in farmers’ land confiscation protests in Sagaing District, said that even though they had applied for permission, the authorities “had denied it under the pretext that the protest might cause public disorder or traffic jams.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, he said, “We know it’s risky, but we are all here for national peace. It has nothing to do with politics. Without peace, there can be no development.”
Shortly before the march, a police official appeared and warned the organizers that they did not have written permission to hold a protest, saying that it was against the law to stage a demonstration without government approval.
“Sorry, officer!” cried out one of the protesters. “The civil war has affected the country both economically and socially. No one is taking responsibility for that. Now you are accusing us of causing mayhem. It’s very unjust. We can’t follow your order. We have to move ahead. You may take legal action against us afterward!”
With many wearing light blue T-Shirts and headbands with slogans reading “Stop the Civil War!” and placards declaring “Nothing Beats Peace,” some 300 marchers set off from City Hall near the Sule Pagoda, heading northbound on the main road. Emboldened by the protesters’ defiance in front of police officers, many spectators joined in.
The crowd swelled as it headed toward Inya Lake as one of the organizers shouted through a loudspeaker to puzzled onlookers that they were marching to call an end to the civil war.
Ethnic Kachin man, Brang Mai, 35, was one passer-by who joined the march. He said he did it out of conscientiousness and does not belong to any organization or party.
“I’m here not only for the Kachin people, but for national peace. I don’t want to see any more trouble and suffering,” he said.
Ma Cho and two fellow farmers traveled from Hlaing Tharyar Township to take part in the demonstration. The 35-year-old said she knows they are doing the right thing.
“I really envy the peace protesters here in Rangoon,” she said. “If we farmers could stage a protest like this, we might make some headway against those military cronies who seized our land.”
Organizers expressed satisfaction that the protest was proceeding without incident as a group of some 250 protesters had been prevented the night before from traveling by bus to Naypyidaw to stage a march.
In Mon State capital Moulmein, around 50 people marked the UN’s International Peace Day with a protest and some discussions. No interruptions or confrontations with security forces were reported.
The Karen National Union (KNU) issued a statement to mark the occasion, calling on President Thein Sein’s government to observe a one-day ceasefire in Kachin State, “which will be a step towards a permanent ceasefire in the whole of Burma.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Friday, KNU General-Secretary Zipporah Sein said that the KNU noted that although the KNU has already signed a truce with Naypyidaw, it had, in years previous, observed a one-day ceasefire out of respect for the United Nations’ International Peace Day.
She said that Karen women’s groups had held a vigil in Mae Sot at the Thai-Burmese border to mark the day and to call for a nationwide ceasefire.